A pair of white-trash wingdings opened recently to decent but slightly dismissive reviews—the sort that essentially say, Well done but why we do have to watch?
Reviews for a revival of David Steen’s A GIFT FROM HEAVEN at the Beverly Hills Playhouse typify this plastic-gloves approach. The Weekly’s Neal Weaver called it “unadulterated Southern Gothic” that “verges on Grand Guignol,” and wrote with relief that “by the end we’re grateful that anyone survives.” Back Stage West’s Travis Michael Holder found it all a bit trite, speculating that a play “about backwoods folk who don't talk in tongues while maintaining an incestuous relationship with one of their immediate relatives” would “seem almost as novel as a storyline about non-whiny New Yorkers who weren't traumatized by overachieving parents or troubled priests who didn't diddle alter boys.” And in my Times review, I went all Miss Manners on the play’s characters, writing, “No one in this isolated, hardscrabble shack in the hills of North Carolina seems to know quite how to behave.” But we agreed that the performances, particularly lead Beth Grant’s, are outstanding, and that Jim Holmes’ “sculpted, unhurried” direction exhibits “care and commitment.” If only the show’s characters didn’t need so much commitment, we sensitive aesthetes seem to be saying.
Actually, Back Stage West’s Les Spindle was the only critic (on record at least) who held his nose through Oliver Hailey’s KITH AND KIN at the Hudson Guild in Hollywood. He found little to admire in Hailey’s “determinedly raunchy” and unredeeming script (to which he saw parallels in Del Shores’ work), or in Matt Kelley’s “flat-footed direction, plagued by sluggish pacing and tonal confusion.” At the Times, David Nichols conceded that while Hailey “overplays his expositional hand, his singular voice deflects [the play’s] Southern gothic excesses with brazen wit and bruised feeling,” calling the result a “specialized yet satisfying immorality play.” And the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris (who also noted the play’s affinity with Del Shores’ Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?) saw K&K as “a poison-laced love letter to family,” with admittedly retrograde sexual attitudes but a “view of life [that] is sophisticated and deeply humane.” He also raved that “the performers are singularly charismatic, enveloping the room with a buzz of electricity.” Apparently not all of us critics are threatened by a little in-your-face down-home dysfunction.